Monday, December 29, 2014

"O' the lazy sea her stream thrusts far amid" in the little city by the bay with Robert

Also, I am still reading a book of Robert Browning's shorter poems. "Caliban Upon Setebos" is very good. Browning reminds me that Caliban is one of Shakespeare's greatest inventions. Browning's Caliban is also quite fine: the poet got the tone and voice just right, and his primitive theology wholly believable. My favorite line comes right at the end, when a storm hits the island and Caliban fears that his musings have offended the god Setebos:
What, what? A curtain o'er the world at once!
Crickets stop hissing; not a bird—or, yes,
There scuds His raven, that hath told Him all!
It was fool's play, this prattling! Ha! The wind
Shoulders the pillared dust, death's house o' the move,
And fast invading fires begin! White blaze—
A tree's head snaps—and there, there, there, there, there,
His thunder follows!
"there, there, there, there, there" is wonderful, the rhythmic repetition of Caliban's sudden fear at the manifestation of the horrible deity. The poem is about what? superstition, maybe, explaining the divine in the lowly terms of humanity? filling the blank spots in our knowledge with the blind spots in our self knowledge? Great stuff.

Perhaps I'm attracted to this poem because it reflects similar ideas to the snippet from George Santayana that Umbagollah has posted over at Pykk:
from the describable qualities of things, we repeat the rationalistic fiction of turning the notions which we abstract from the observation of facts into the powers that give those facts character and being.
I've been thinking about these sorts of things a lot these days, of how we paint over the face of the universe with portraits of ourselves as a way of claiming to understand reality.


  1. "There, there, there" reminds me that Shakespeare was a pioneer of that kind of dramatically articulated inarticulacy, Lady Macbeth saying, "O! O! O!" or Charmain in Antony and Cleopatra summing up the achievement of Cleopatra's corpse with the words, "Ah, soldier!" -- which, now, I wonder what happens to that in light of Santayana's idea. Is that "O! O!" or "there, there" a short-circuit in the face of his "endless perplexities"?

    1. Or Lear's last speeches, "Howl, howl, howl, howl!" and "Look on her, look, her lips, Look there, look there!" A short-circuit, yes, a way of disproving Beckett's claims that one can only really say nothing, or nothing of significance. The way to get at it is to go the other way, away from articulateness, which is one of the ways I see that the Moderns are connected directly to Shakespeare anyway. I don't know if I'm making a lick of sense; this is a very hectic day.

  2. The idea that, a) words are insufficient and b) we're compelled to say them anyway, is a Beckettian position though, so I'm not sure that "O! O!" or "Howl, howl," disproves him. I'd argue the opposite, and point to them as expressions of support. Nothing of significance is being said. You could give "Howl" to Lady Macbeth and "O!" to Lear. Nothing would change. "[I]f it will be kindly considered that to hear and note one of our murmurs is to hear and note them all," says the voice in How it is.

  3. "Nothing of significance is being said." "Nothing would change." I'll have to think about that and see if I agree. I'm not sure. "of significance" is a problem.

  4. By "said" I mean something like, "clarified, described, or violated by utterance." The word "O!" points to a complex of emotions -- it lets you know that she's struggling against internal force -- but it doesn't say them. "O!" doesn't differentiate between "I am a party to regicide," and "I have a tummy ache, get me the alka-seltzer." Let her say "Howl!" and it can still point to the same source. Let her run around muttering "Crap," if she likes.

    1. No, no, I get what you mean. I'm not at all sure what my possible objection might be. It sure feels like I have a possible objection, though. Something about characters in context, maybe, but my feeling that "howl!" belongs to Lear is only based on Shakespeare having given that line to him rather than to Lady M. But that doesn't quite feel true either. So I'll have to think about this. Likely I'm being nagged by a tangential idea; that happens a lot. Something about utterances revealing truths that can't be described in language, or something. Something related to my opinion that Wittgenstein's Tractactus rules out whole forms of language, like poetry or plays or fiction or scripture, which seems wrong-headed. I don't know, is what I mean.

      I do get what you're saying, though, about the particular not being said in this Shakespearean glossolalia.

    2. Let her run around muttering "Crap," if she likes.

      That's Ubu Enchained!

    3. Lady Ubeth: All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand! Crap! Bum! Knickers! Buggery!